This December marks the 30th year that Wreaths Across American has placed wreaths on the graves of veterans in cemeteries around the country, including Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. It honors those who have served our country.
Joe Regan, director of military and veteran outreach for Wreaths Across America and an army veteran, said the international organization’s mission is to remember fallen veterans, honor the sacrifices of military members, living veterans, and their families, and teach the next generation of Americans the value of freedom and about the sacrifices that are made on their behalf every day.
On Sunday, December 12, a convoy will go from the group’s Columbia Falls, Maine headquarters to Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, arriving on the 18th. That is national Wreaths Across America Day. Nearly 3,000 cemeteries will participate in wreath events. Thirty years ago the organization began with 5,000 wreaths. Now it’s up to 2 million, with an army of volunteers all over the country. Sponsorship is $15 a wreath.
The organization began as a tradition for the Worcester family. In 1992, Morrill Worcester and his wife, Karen, found themselves with about 5,000 extra wreaths that they didn’t sell during the holiday season. Morrill thought back to when he was about 12 and had won a competition to get a trip to Washington, D.C. One thing that always stuck with him about that trip was his visit to Arlington National Cemetery and he had the idea of laying those wreaths there as a thank you to veterans.
Now with over 3,000 cemeteries in every state of the country, it has also expanded into Guam and Puerto Rico. Before COVID, it was also in Europe, honoring veterans who are buried overseas.
“And so that opportunity to lay that wreath on the headstone of that veteran, to say the name of that person, it sounds so simple,” said Regan. “But at that moment, when you say that name, and you’re standing there, it creates that connection and that bond with that veteran, and that’s tremendously powerful.”
For Regan, who has several friends who were killed overseas, it is maintaining that connection with fallen brothers. For others, it could be a complete stranger. Many veterans had no living relatives to recognize them.
“One thing I’ve heard from a couple of different places: They say that everyone dies twice. First, when your heart stops, and then there’s the last time that someone says your name,” said Regan. “Through this program, regular citizens can keep that individual’s memory alive. The visible part of what we do is the wreath-laying. But it really is a powerful expression of our commitment to living up to the legacy of those men and women who have served our country and are the ones responsible for all the amazing things that we have.”
With about 500 partnerships with individual American Legion and VFW posts across the country, volunteers and donors come together to make this event possible every year. For every two wreaths sponsored, the third wreath will help support living veterans in communities.
“And if you look at Hollywood, there are several very notable folks there who served in the United States military. And one, in particular, my great-grandfather who served in World War I was the iconic Walter Brennan, one of only a few actors who won three Academy Awards. One thing that made him distinctive was his unique voice. And I learned from my great-grandfather that he had been in several gas attacks,” said Regan.
“That was why Walter Brennan’s voice was higher pitched, a result of damage to his vocal cords because of a gas attack. A guy like Walter Brennan, who, despite being wounded, used that and it helped define his career. And he found tremendous success. So I go back to the last portion of our mission, the teaching component. We share those stories of how our veterans who are living in communities across the country continue to give back and use the skills and the experiences they had in the military, to bring back to their civilian lives and create a tremendous amount of value,” he said.
Regan encourages everyone to find a cemetery and witness the wreaths for themselves on December 18.
You can also hear the stories of our veterans on the iHeart Radio platform, where they have a Wreaths Across America radio station, not only to highlight patriotic music but information about activities, interviews with location coordinators but also issues impacting veterans. One of the programs, “Mission Matters,” is one that Regan hosts along with co-founder and executive director Karen Worcester explains why its mission is important.
Prior to joining Wreaths Across America, Regan ran a nonprofit that focused on supporting homeless veterans and veterans with chronic mental health issues, giving them hand-ups, not handouts.